Outside of the financial sector, there are three main advantages to blockchain technology. Information encoded within the blockchain is simultaneously transparent, private, and largely able to act autonomously. This makes blockchain a natural fit for the struggling healthcare sector, which continually finds itself beset by boatloads of information that must be handled quickly and discreetly.
Although the medical sector is conservative by design, blockchain technology is making slow inroads. In a surprisingly short period of time, it might very well transform the way we care for ourselves and each other.
Files upon Files
There’s a certain hospital in the in the popular “A Series of Unfortunate Events” novels by Daniel Handler, writing under the pen name of Lemony Snicket. This Heimlich Hospital exists for one primary purpose – to generate, complete, and file paperwork. Making people well again is entirely incidental.
It’s a not-so-subtle jab at the industry as a whole. The healthcare industry’s paperwork situation is comically tragic, as anyone who’s endured a visit to the emergency room in the last 25 years can attest.
The sheer volume of information is staggering. There are patient files, insurance forms, and prescription records to keep track of, as well as government regulations and all the bells and whistles associated with running a business.
A hospital has the potential to generate paperwork like almost nothing else, as it sits at the intersection of so many different interests.
Compounding this problem is the innate resistance to change in the healthcare field. Medicine is a conservative field, with tried-and-true solutions being preferred to emerging technologies. Chances are that you’ll still be presented with a clipboard full of forms to fill out the next time you visit the doctor. The very issue of transferring records to electronic storage is still contentious, due to possible security breaches and the crushing amount of data that would have to be scanned or typed. For some institutions, making the shift from paper files to electronic files is just not economical.
Blockchain technology promises an easier solution, once the initial bridges of data entry and adoption are crossed. The decentralized nature of blockchain technology permits the processing and storage of vast amounts of data with relatively little overhead. Whole floors of steel filing cabinets and reams of paper could be boiled down to lines of code on a server or two interacting with the blockchain. Missing or misplaced records could become a thing of the past due to the blockchain’s time-stamping abilities, and providing access to those files would be a snap. In the conventional system, a physical file – or even an electronic file – must be pulled, verified, and then sent to the appropriate party. Oftentimes, this duty falls to secretaries or dedicated record keepers, who are, after all, only human. Humans can only work so quickly, and sometimes, they make mistakes.
A blockchain-based filing system, however, could provide near instantaneous data transfer along a distributed ledger, as all participants enjoy access. But therein lies the next complication within the healthcare industry.
Safe and Secure
Medical records are, by law, private. This commonsense measure creates huge hassles regarding how information can be stored and accessed. At first glance, a blockchain system would seem rather inappropriate due to its distributed and open nature.
The same security that keeps Bitcoins from floating into undeserving wallets, however, could be applied to medical records. Blockchain technology paradoxically provides for simultaneously open and yet secret information. Using cryptographic hashes, private medical records could be stored in plain sight, so to speak, while retaining their owners’ anonymity.
This will seem like a big leap for medical professionals for whom the danger of hacking traditional electronic records is a concern – doubly so due to reported hacks in the crypto sphere of major exchanges.
The security of the blockchain, however, improves steadily each day. Additionally, the vast majority of so-called hacks are really phishing attacks, where the victim has unknowingly or unwittingly given up their own information. This kind of attack is hardly unique to the blockchain, and indeed social engineering is probably a bigger threat to traditional electronic and paper systems. If you don’t think so, ask your local hospital what the policies are regarding document destruction. They are likely to be quite draconian, involving shredding and burning physical records. It might seem rather extreme, but paper systems by default generate physical records that can be stolen, copied, lost, or handed out inappropriately. In at least one case, a janitor nearly dropped off an entire bin worth of sensitive medical documents to a recycling center, instead of shredding and disposing of them. That very human error could have resulted in a staggering breach of privacy and triggered countless lawsuits. The blockchain’s inbuilt measures to protect against double-spending immediately counter this.
Like a real hospital, we’ve spent quite a bit of time on paperwork. How can the blockchain actually help folks to get well?
The synergies present in the blockchain should allow physicians to talk with each other and share records more quickly and accurately, ensuring a higher patient standard of care. Prescriptions no longer need to be hand-delivered or faxed if they can be communicated along the blockchain. The insurance handling process can be greatly simplified and costs mitigated, allowing some patients to seek care they might otherwise not be able to afford.
Blockchain technology also permits interoperability in the hospital setting itself. The company Medicalchain, with it’s MedToken spells out in its white paper how eliminating data bottlenecks in a hospital setting can ultimately save lives.
“Clinicians rely upon investigations and tests to make informed decisions about a patient’s diagnosis and possible treatment plan. Traditionally, an investigation or test should only be requested and arranged if this is going to lead to a different possible diagnosis or alternative treatment plan. Unfortunately, even when the results of an investigation or test have returned, these are rarely shared widely with all of the health professionals involved in the patient’s care and are normally isolated, or siloed, at the institution which requested them originally,” the coin’s developers wrote. “The patient’s quality of care suffers as a result of this. Other institutions are not aware of a patient’s complete history and in turn, this could lead to incorrect decision making, delays, and unnecessary costs for the patient or health institution. In the worst case, these medical errors can be fatal.”
Citing a study by John Hopkins Hospital, the paper went on to claim that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2016.
Slow but Sure
Blockchain adoption in the medical field is likely to be slower than average due to the nature of the industry. The immediate and long-term benefits, however, are unlikely to go unnoticed. Blockchain offers an elegant solution to keeping massive amounts of paperwork both easily available and relentlessly private. It also promises a higher standard of care as doctors, patients, and auxiliary players gain the ability to trade information more easily.
The Hippocratic Oath boils down to, “Do no harm.” The blockchain is already proving its usefulness and security in touchy sectors like insurance and finance. It should only be a matter of time before it meets this stringent medical threshold.